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Labor Party Rift Widens With Challenge to Peres' Leadership


JERUSALEM — Three and a half months after its defeat in national elections, Israel's Labor Party appears to be neither humbled nor healing itself.

And the internal rifts that contributed to the party's downfall widened further this week when former Foreign Minister Ehud Barak announced that he will seek the party leadership in June and its nomination for prime minister in the year 2000, whether or not former Prime Minister Shimon Peres steps down.

Peres, who has been hanging on as party chief despite a humiliating fifth electoral defeat in May, was visiting the United States when Barak threw in his hat, and Peres let it be known that he was miffed. Peres helped bring Barak from the army into the Labor government 15 months ago and had been seen as a supporter of the retired general against Barak's main competition, Haim Ramon.

Yossi Beilin, a Labor member of parliament and Peres confidant, sniffed that it was "in bad taste" for Barak to have announced his plans while Peres was abroad. Dalia Itzek, another legislator and Peres ally, described the move as "a clear anti-Peres challenge."

Barak countered that he had informed Peres of his intentions. But amid rumors that Peres, 73, was contemplating a sixth run for prime minister--a job he held most recently and briefly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin--Barak lobbed his mentor a backhanded compliment. "I have high appreciation for his past achievements," he said.

Barak acknowledged that he is a political newcomer but said his close work with five prime ministers in a 35-year career in the armed forces makes him the best candidate to run the party and Israel. "I am confident that I can lead the party back to power," he told foreign journalists this week.

His foe Ramon was less than gracious about the announcement, sniping that "only a political novice and rank amateur can so pompously declare that only he can save the party."

Barak and Ramon have been bickering since the campaign, when Barak was in charge of Peres' bid for premier and Ramon ran the parliamentary race. While both failed, Ramon is widely blamed for the stunning losses. Labor lost 10 parliamentary seats--nearly a quarter of its previous contingent.

Despite prodding from Barak to be more aggressive, Ramon launched virtually no campaign early in the race, assuming the party could rest on its peacemaking laurels, and he conducted an ineffective effort later on.

Labor leaders, however, apparently still have not completely come to terms with the defeat. A 400-page party report, due out next week but already leaked to Israeli television, is said to acknowledge the exodus of Russian immigrant voters and the high turnout of religious voters for the victorious Likud Party. But it suggests the narrow defeat could have resulted from an insufficient number of poll watchers--in another word, fraud--more than from any error by the party.

Barak tried to turn attention away from Labor's infighting by lashing out at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he said is moving "very slowly and clumsily" in peacemaking and should have shaken Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's hand sooner "without losing the mutual confidence gained under the previous government."

Acting like an opposition candidate, Barak said that Netanyahu's unwillingness to take risks and make compromises with the Palestinians "will lead us to live indefinitely on our swords."

As he was attacking Netanyahu, political pundits were drawing comparisons between the center-to-right pragmatists who served together in the army as youths. Three years ago, Netanyahu was a political neophyte when he stood before older and more experienced party rivals and insisted he was Likud's best hope for victory over Labor. Barak, no doubt, is taking lessons from Netanyahu, who moved quickly and firmly into the prime minister's office.

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